While out for a run on the Ware River Rail-Trail on Tuesday, March 31, Steve Levandosky encountered a sign that inspired him to stop, pull out his phone and snap a photo.
“Use of this trail is a privilege & not a right,” the sign read.
The message resonated with Levandosky—both the first and second parts of it.
Indeed, the 49-year-old resident of Hopkinton, Mass., was savoring that privilege for around 16 miles on this particular day. At the same time, Levandosky knew better than to take the experience for granted. An avid conservationist, he thoroughly understood that this trail only exists for him to use because the land it resides on is protected (it’s a Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation-owned property) and volunteers help maintain it.
“In simplest terms, there are no trails without land, and any land that is not conserved will eventually be developed,” Levandosky said.
This is personal for Levandosky. Sure, he loves running on the trails, be it solo days or group settings like races. He was scheduled to race the 10K at the Trail Animals Running Club’s Spring Classic in late April, an event that has since been canceled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. He was the runner-up at the same event’s half-marathon in 2019 and won the 50K at the 2017 Spring Classic. More than running and racing, he simply enjoys being out in nature. He and his family spend countless hours outside. Dog walks at the local park are daily occurrences; weekend family hikes on the trails or in the mountains happen regularly.
Whether it’s the Ware River Rail-Trail, the parks and forests in his town of Hopkinton, or the trails where races take place throughout Massachusetts, Levandosky knows these places only exist because people took action to protect them from development.
“Since my wife and I moved back to Massachusetts 16 years ago we have seen tremendous growth in Hopkinton and the surrounding area,” Levandosky said. “Hopkinton has lost a great deal of open space, most notably the 700 acres of tree nursery that became the Legacy Farms development. All over the state I see land and trails being lost to development. The demand for land is ever-increasing, and there is a finite supply. Also, once land is developed, it never becomes un-developed. The only parcels of open space that are ‘safe’ from development are those designated as conservation land and owned by public or private land conservation organizations.”
Levandosky joined the fight to protect and expand outdoor spaces and local trail systems a few years ago when he joined the Hopkinton Area Land Trust (HALT), first as a land steward and eventually as a member of the board of directors. HALT manages several conservation spaces in Hopkinton, in some cases as the property owner and in others as the holder of the conservation restriction.
“One of the reasons I became involved with HALT initially was that one of its trails, the Betty Fitzpatrick Trail, had come into disrepair – I discovered it when I was out for a run one day and could barely navigate my way through it,” Levandosky recalled. “During the summer of 2017, I worked with an Eagle Scout candidate and other volunteers to reroute and rebuild this trail, which is now about a mile long. Around the same time I approached SVT (Sudbury Valley Trustees) with the idea of building a trail on their abutting property that would connect the Fitzpatrick Trail to HALT’s Sands Trail and to the Pipeline Trail at Hopkinton State Park. Fortunately, SVT had also been considering this and were supportive, so by the fall of 2017 we had built what is now Saddle Hill Trail.”
The early experience collaborating with HALT and SVT proved to Levandosky that taking action could make a difference. He was just getting started. In 2018, Levandosky teamed with John Ritz of the Hopkinton Trails Club and HALT president Morrie Gasser to build four bridges and construct a connector trail between two main trails in the Cameron Woods conservation area. In the summer of 2019, Levandosky cleared and rebuilt the Hopkinton Meadows Trail, and in the fall and winter he supervised an Eagle Scout project that constructed two more bridges. Beyond Hopkinton, he has also volunteered in construction of a section of the Boroughs Loop Trail which, once complete, will be a 33-mile loop through Westborough, Southborough, Marlborough and Northborough.
While most of his early conservation work focused on building and maintaining trails on land already protected, he has also begun taking action to expand the amount of protected land in his community. This has included identifying properties in town that he thinks should be protected and bringing them to the attention of local land conservation groups.
“I recently joined Hopkinton’s Open Space Preservation Commission,” he said, “and we are currently working with HALT, SVT and DCR to reach out to open space land owners in town and inform them about land conservation options, such as donating or selling land, or granting a conservation restriction on a portion of their land, which allows them to retain ownership and provides them a tax benefit, but permanently restricts development on the land, and in some cases allows for public passive recreation and trails.”
The efforts of people like Levandosky and organizations such as the Hopkinton Open Space Preservation Commission to expand protected lands are particularly noteworthy at times like this where the public’s desire for trails, forests and other wild spaces to enjoy is skyrocketing and the limited supply of space is highlighted. Since mid-March, schools throughout the state have been closed and most workers have been ordered to work from home to create “social distancing” and help slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, numerous trail systems throughout the state have become overrun with foot traffic as people seek an escape from their homes. Many of them are newcomers to the trails and are just now discovering the special places that hikers, mountain bikers, equestrian riders, and trail-runners like Levandosky have savored for years.
Many of the newcomers likely don’t realize the countless time and effort that people put in over several decades to build the trails and protect the lands that are providing them some relief during the pandemic. Many of them likely don’t know the work that is being done right now to take care of those trails and lands, and to expand them whenever possible. Many of them surely don’t realize that use of the trail is a privilege and not a right, unless there’s a sign to tell them that deep truth.
Perhaps they’ll learn as they spend more time exploring the trails and forests on protected lands. Maybe they’ll come across a volunteer clearing brush or picking up litter left behind by others and see first-hand the work being done to protect and preserve these places. Had they been in the right place at the right time in late March, about a week after the schools closed and work-from-home orders were issued, they might have encountered Levandosky in the woods on a HALT property where he was avoiding the COVID-19 crowds and building a new trail.
“The trail we’re building now will augment an existing system of trails managed by HALT, SVT and DCR (Hopkinton State Park),” he said. “Morrie Gasser and I had been talking about doing something with this property a few weeks ago and decided one day to walk it to see how feasible it would be. The next day we were flagging it.”
While he and Gasser flagged the trail together prior to the “social distancing” orders being issued, Levandosky has built the new trail by himself. It took him about 12 hours over four days to build around 1.3 miles of the new singletrack trail using a rake, hand pruners and a small folding saw. He still has another half-mile to add before the trail will be complete. Upon completion, the new trail will form a second connection between the Sands Trail and the Fitzpatrick Trail—the original trail Levandosky helped rebuild in 2017—and will create a roughly 2.5-mile loop.
Whether people are long-time trail-users or first-timers seeking to escape the confines of home during the pandemic, Levandosky said everyone can make a difference in maintaining trails and protecting outdoor spaces.
“There are many land conservation groups in the state, and most rely heavily on volunteers for land stewardship and trail maintenance,” he said. “One simple thing everyone can do is find out who owns and maintains the trails they regularly use and reach out to that group to get involved. Another thing people can do is identify privately-owned parcels of land in their area that they believe should be conserved and mention these to local and state conservation organizations. DCR has a budget for land acquisition, mostly for parcels that would augment DCR parks and forests. Also, many communities in the state have adopted the Community Preservation Act, which sets aside a percentage of local tax revenue for community preservation projects, such as open space land acquisitions. One can thus propose that town CPA funds be used toward the purchase of privately-owned land. This has been the mechanism that Hopkinton has used in recent years to acquire open space land.”
The difference between action and inaction might seem insignificant to some, but Levandosky has seen both sides of it with his own eyes. Successes such as trail-building with HALT, securing land through Hopkinton’s Open Space Preservation Commission, and collaborating with SVT and DCR have shown him what’s possible when trails and land are treated as a privilege and not a right.
He has also seen the grave consequence of inaction, and it serves as a reminder to him that trails and the conservation of land are worth fighting for.
“Sometime last year I went for a run on some trails in Millbury, and heard some machine in the distance,” he recalled. “As I followed the trail the sound got louder and louder and I soon saw that it was some machine clear-cutting the woods. The trail came to a dead end at the edge of a clearing, so I turned around, but a short distance later I found that the machine had already cleared through the path I had been on just a few minutes before. The trail was literally disappearing while I was running it.”